"NASCAR Now" Insider Marty Smith sat down with Tony Stewart last weekend to talk about Stewart's past, present and future. The following is the transcript from that interview.
Marty Smith: The first time Joe Gibbs called you, what was that call like and what did it entail? What was your reaction to getting that call?
Tony Stewart: It's kind of a funny story -- the first time he called me, I was actually hurt from an IRL crash in Las Vegas, and my buddies had been calling me all day and saying they were A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti; so it's about 10 o'clock at night and the phone rings and mom says it's Joe Gibbs, and I'm like, "How the hell are you, Joe?" And Joe starts talking and I realize it really is him, so the first conversation was kind of interesting. He was checking on me; he had never spoke to me before obviously, so that started the dialogue to what ended up eventually being my move to Joe Gibbs Racing.
Marty: And that leap to stock cars is not an easy one for any open-wheel driver, so what was it about Joe Gibbs Racing that you looked at and said, "OK, I think this is the place I can go and be successful?"
Tony: Well, I had already driven eight Nationwide races for Harry Rennier that same year, and they wanted to move to the Cup Series. I knew in my heart I wasn't ready to move to the Cup Series, yet we got two calls at the end of that year -- one was from Barry Green to go to the CART series, and one was from Rick Hendrick also wanting us to go to the Cup Series, so, I knew I wasn't ready for that, and Joe's opportunity allowed me to run two years in the Nationwide Series and still let me fulfill my obligations in the IRL, and that led to us making that decision that in '99 we would make the jump full time to the Cup Series. But it wasn't as hard of a transition as everybody thought. I mean, I was still running midgets and sprint cars, I was still running Indy cars, I was running the Nationwide Series, I was running everything, anytime I could get in a race car, I was driving a race car So, for me, it wasn't so much the transition as much as it was just getting into cars and being able to run laps.
Marty: Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, not the easiest choice in the world when you went down to North Carolina and walked into Joe Gibbs Racing for the first time. What was your initial reaction to what was going on there?
Tony: I'd never been to a Cup shop before, so to see 12, 14 cars sitting in a shop, it was just something I was amazed with. I mean, I came from midget teams who might have had two cars in their shop or sprint car teams that might have two cars in their shop, and to see all the people that it took, and at that time, it was only about 50 or 60 employees who worked at Joe Gibbs Racing at that time -- but to go to an organization like that, it was like, "Man, this is huge," and now we look at Joe Gibbs Racing, and we've got over 400 employees there, so it's been fun to see the transition of all this. But when I went down there and met with Joe and everybody at the shop the first time, we realized this was an organization that had everything together and had the right pieces to do the right job.
Marty: What is the single most impactful piece of advice or lesson that Joe Gibbs has given you professionally, first?
Tony: Ah, I think the thing I've learned most from him -- you hire the right people to do the right jobs, and that's something that we've transferred through my open-wheel teams and that's helped us be very, very, successful. But a lot of it also is, he still puts things in football terms a lot and says the drivers are like the quarterbacks and that the crew chiefs are like the coaches, so you keep that in mind and you realize that everybody feeds off you at the team, whether it's the guys at the road, Friday, Saturday, Sunday with you, whether it's the guys who just come in Sunday to do the pit stops -- those guys all feed off of your emotions during the day.
Marty: What about personally -- he's had an impact on millions of people's lives, what about you personally? What's the biggest impact he's had on you, personally?
Tony: Joe's very religious, and that's a great thing. I mean, it's really hard to have balance in your life, especially at this level with all the things that go on around stock car racing, so Joe has that way of helping you kind of find a balance in your life. And for me, it was my property in Indiana and not always being in North Carolina around everybody. So just being able to go home and get away and do things that kinda got me away from the daily grind of it, that was a huge thing for me, and that was something that Joe -- when he realized that I had that opportunity to do that -- thought that was a great thing.
Marty: You've been through a lot with the Gibbs family, remarkable success on the race track, more than 30 wins, two championships, and then there's been plenty of drama off the race track. When you think about those tough times, is there a certain time that sticks out maybe for you when you think, "Man, I can't believe they stuck with me through this?"
Tony: I think all of those times you can't believe it, but it's like Joe says, "I've dealt with a lot worse in football." But at the same time, I mean, when you're a part of their family, you're a part of their family, and thick and thin, they stick by you. They don't always agree with what you do, but they look at you as a person, they don't look at you as a liability or an asset -- they do on the professional side, but when it comes down to it at the end of the day, you're a part of their family, and that's something that's always meant a lot to me.
Marty: Rare these days, too, it seems
Tony: Yeah, it's so competitive here, and with sponsorships being as competitive as they are now and so many drivers wanting to be a part of the series, it is ultra competitive right now. And if you don't put yourself in good positions, you can be sitting on the outside looking in very easily.
Marty: Where does Joe Gibbs rank for you in terms of influences on your entire life?
Tony: I think in the big picture, I would say, in the top three. There's a couple other people who are really, really, close to me that have been a big influence, too. But Joe has always been at the top of that list; he's just one of those people that just his presence is a strong presence when he's around you, even if he's not somewhere where he can sit and talk to you. Just having Joe there is just a big presence and a big comfort.
Marty: How bout Greg Zipadelli? What does Greg mean to you?
Tony: Greg's my big brother; he's the one that, when I do something stupid, he says, "That was really stupid, you know." But, the great thing about Greg is that there are times that something comes up in your life that may be with racing or may not be -- it may be totally away from racing -- and you know I've always been able to pick up the phone and know that I'm gonna get him on the other end and, you know, a lot of the things -- especially earlier in our career, even though we didn't grow up around each other -- things that were going on in our lives were parallel and things that I was going through at the time, he had went through, so, it's always been great. I mean, it's been perfect for me to have somebody like him who is somebody who I have the utmost respect for on the professional side but love as a brother on the personal side and the friendship that we have.
Greg's my big brother; he's the one that, when I do something stupid, he says, "That was really stupid, you know."
-- Tony Stewart
Marty: That type of relationship and the chemistry derived from it are virtually impossible to duplicate. It's very hard to do -- what are your concerns about post-Zipadelli life?
Tony: Well, A, that he's not gonna be there, that's the first thing. You know, this has been a hard thing knowing that next year, Zippy's not gonna be there. But you know at the same time, we didn't know each other before we went to our first Daytona test, too, so, it doesn't mean it's the end of the world. Will it be different? Absolutely. There's going to be a lot of things different about it, but the great thing is, it's not like we're not going to see each other. We're still going to be in the same garage, we'll still have opportunities to talk to each other, and even though I'll be with a different team, I think he'll still be that big brother for me.
Marty: I interviewed Zipadelli earlier this week, and he mentioned how hard it was on him throughout this process of you deciding to move on and go another direction, and considered it a distraction to the team, but here you are, still in the thick of a championship hunt. You guys could still win a championship. How do you manage that distraction for the rest of the year?
Tony: It's through Zippy, it's through Zippy's leadership. He keeps the guys pumped up. I try to keep the guys pumped up. We try to act like nothing's going on and just go there with the same attitude that we go to the race track with every week, and for the most part, it works. I mean, it's hard to imagine that something this big isn't going to affect your team, but you know, when the guys see what I'm focused on going into the weekend and they see that Zippy's focused on it, they feed off of us, and it helps keep everything going in the right direction.
Marty: How will you incorporate your life at Joe Gibbs Racing into your new role as owner at Stewart-Haas?
Tony: I think like I mentioned, Joe's best piece of advice is just hiring the right people to do the right jobs, and that's where we've started already. It's making sure we have the right people in place. If we don't, how do we find those people, and that's where Joe was really strong was the recruiting side. So just learning those lessons from Joe and talking about how his philosophy of how the team should be run and why they do what they do is stuff that's a proven product, so it's a pretty good blueprint on how to build a race team.
Marty: Both Joe and J.D. [Gibbs] have joked since the time you announced you were leaving that they'd like to sit down next year this time and re-evaluate it with you. How hard did they try to talk you out of this?
Tony: From day one, it wasn't something that they were happy about, knowing that this might be an option. But, that's the great thing about them as people, is that as much as they didn't wanna see me go, they understood why I was doing what I was doing, and I think you'll never hear them say it, but I think there's a part of them that's proud that I've taken this step. But for them as an organization, obviously they didn't want us to go, and none of us ever thought that we would be in a position where we would ever leave Joe Gibbs Racing, but an opportunity like what came up doesn't come up very often.
Marty: What is the hardest part of your job that people may not see?
Tony: Ah, my job's not just driving the race car, it's not just being in the car for an hour and a half on Friday, and two qualifying laps and an hour and 50 minutes on Saturday, and then a race on Sunday. That's a fraction of what we do. That's less than 10 percent of what we do. It's all the work, it's all the appearances, it's all the autograph sessions, all the days that now we're having to spend at the new shop to start building for next year. Those are the things that people don't get a chance to see and don't realize when you gotta go fly to a meeting somewhere to talk about sponsorships. Those are the things that people don't know.
Marty: What do you think is the biggest issue facing team owners right now in NASCAR?
Tony: Well, obviously the economy I think is huge; you know the sponsorships drive these programs, and without that, we all struggle to maintain the budgets that we need to do what we do every week. So I'd say that's probably the biggest thing.
Marty: A couple quick questions on Watkins Glen. When you reflect on 2007 here -- you and Jeff Gordon, probably the two greatest road racers in the Sprint Cup Series -- both experienced the exact same problem in the exact same place. You ultimately prevailed. When you reevaluate that and think back about that, how surprised are you that that happened, the way that race unfolded last year?
Tony: You know, to have both of us have the same mistake in the same part of the track was something that I think showed how difficult the new car was to get balanced. But at the same time, how hard that we were both pushing each other. I mean, we were pushing each other 100 percent. There wasn't anything left on the table in that race, and it was that way to the very end of it also, so there's no doubt after you watch the end of that race, after you watch what happened to both of us, all the cards were laid out. There wasn't anybody holding back on anything. I mean, it was 100 percent every lap all the way to the end.
Marty: Four wins here [Watkins Glen], I think, in nine starts -- what sort of testament is that to you as a driver?
Tony: It wasn't something that I even realized and thought about until we got here this week. Ah, you know, you always talk about batting .300 will get you in the Hall of Fame, you know, in baseball, and we're batting over .400 here at the Glen. But I've always liked the road courses. I mean, we've had success here at the Glen obviously and at Sonoma, and it's a discipline that I enjoy. I enjoy doing something different. I enjoy a different challenge, and these are tracks that you only go to once a year, so it's fun to be able to come here all the time, you know, once a year and try to figure out what you gotta do to stay on top. And when you've had the success that we've had, it's a track that you always look forward to coming to and knowing that when you show up here, everybody considers you a favorite.
Marty: Named driver of the decade, along with Mark Martin, here at Watkins Glen -- what's that mean to you to be a guy that they look at and say, "This is the best guy for 10 years who's been on this race track?"
Tony: Man, what a huge honor, you know, to think of all the great drivers that have run here and to look at the guys on the list who were also inducted with Jackie Stewart and Mark Martin and the other guys. It's just a huge honor, and it really makes you appreciate and respect the fact of what we've been able to do for that decade that we were voted for. So honors like that don't come around very often, so it's very humbling to receive an award like that.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.